Ministers may axe collective prayers

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Warwick Mansell and Jon Slater report on latest government thinking

Ministers are questioning whether the 60-year-old law requiring daily acts of collective worship in schools should be scrapped, The TES can reveal.

A paper circulated to faith representatives in February asked whether schools should continue to be held to the requirement, which is being flouted by three-quarters of secondaries.

The Department for Education and Skills paper questioned whether there should be a legal stipulation for worship to be daily, whether it should be whole-school and whether there were other ways of celebrating a moral ethos.

It raised the question of whether guidance from the Office for Standards in Education or from the Government should be changed, or if there should be law changes.

This week, David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, sided publicly with those who are lobbying for change, by calling for daily acts of worship to be scrapped.

Writing in today's TES, Mr Bell calls for a recognition of the fact that 76 per cent of secondaries are breaking the law which, he said, no longer reflected the reality of society today. He admits that he and his inspectors "struggle" to uphold the daily requirement.

"How many people in this country, apart from school children, are required to attend daily worship?" he said. "Are we right to be requiring from our young people levels of observance that are not matched even by the Christian faithful?

"Would it perhaps be better to encourage an interest in matters of a spiritual and religious nature, which fit better into the society of which schools are a part?"

Mr Bell suggests that schools should be required to hold collective acts of worship just once each month with more opportunities for pupils to debate and discuss spiritual and religious issues.

His article follows a speech on Wednesday to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1944 Education Act, known as the Butler Act.

The Act made it authorities' duty to contribute to the spiritual, moral, mental and physical development of the community.

The DfES, which faced a row in February over whether pupils should be taught about atheism in religious education lessons, is extremely nervous about reaction to the review of collective worship.

Officials contacted religious group representatives this week to warn them of Mr Bell's views and to distance themselves from them.

However, Education Secretary Charles Clarke, suggested a review last October. He told a seminar for representatives from six major faith communities that he was concerned about the current law.

The issue has been hotly debated for years. Heads and some evangelical groups have backed a change from daily worship, which some believe puts pupils off religion. In the mid-1990s the requirement was reviewed but changes were blocked by the then Conservative government.

Possible changes cannot be formally considered until at least September. By then consultations on the first national framework for RE will be complete.

The proposed framework is due to be released next week. The TES understands that, although the framework has been substantially rewritten, it will suggest that schools teach humanism and minority religions.

The Right Rev Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden and chair of the London Diocesan Board for Schools, said: "I don't think the law should be changed for voluntary-aided (faith-based) schools. But, with regard to community schools, I think it's sensible that these questions are being asked about RE and collective worship."

Canon John Hall, chief education officer of the Church of England Board of Education, said: "While we welcome debate on this issue, we don't think there should be a change in the law. The danger would be of a lot of schools then saying, 'Collective worship is not important any more.'

"There are greater flexibilities within the law than is generally recognised. We think more attention should be drawn to them."

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The daily act of collective worship in schools is an anachronism.

The time has come to get rid of the hypocrisy and to change the law, bringing schools into the 21st century."

Leader 22 David Bell 23

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